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LGBTQ families speak out: Four ways schools can create safer, more welcoming learning environments for our children

June 17, 2019

By Marianne Lau

Since 2014, professor Tara Goldstein (right) and her team of research students have been conducting video and audio interviews with LGBTQ families to learn about their experiences in publicly funded schools across Ontario (photo by Adam Lee)

While Ontario’s schools are becoming increasingly diverse, schools are still falling behind when it comes to creating safer and more welcoming classrooms. Although many teachers indicate that they support LGBTQ-inclusive education, some still hesitate to fully embrace it in practice.

What’s holding them back? “The fear of parent response,” is one reason teachers often give to Tara Goldstein, a professor with the Department of Curriculum, Teaching and Learning.

Goldstein, who teaches a course for educators on LGBTQ-inclusion education, says that when teachers talk about this fear, they’re fixating on a specific kind of parent: one who is heterosexual, cisgender (a person whose gender corresponds with their sex assigned at birth) and holds traditional values. But by focusing on these parents, Goldstein says teachers are forgetting about the needs and interests of the other families they serve—those who identify as LGBTQ and their allies.

One of the reasons some educators may hold this limited view of the families they serve, Goldstein says, is because they haven’t had the opportunity to meet or hear from LGBTQ families. Determined to change this, she’s spent the past four years capturing stories from LGBTQ families and bringing them to the fore.

Since 2014, Goldstein and her team of graduate students have been conducting video and audio interviews with diverse LGBTQ families about their experiences in publicly funded schools across Ontario—the issues they face, what’s working, what’s needed, and how they currently work with teachers to create safer and more welcoming learning environments for their children.

The team has published clips from their interviews on their website, LGBTQ Families Speak Out, as a resource for parents and educators. Categorized by region and by themes ranging from school culture to curriculum, race and Indigeneity, the videos provide teachers the opportunity to ‘meet’ families who identify as LGBTQ and hear their concerns.

We asked Goldstein to share some takeaways from her research. Below, she outlines some the challenges LGBTQ families face, what they say is needed and how teachers can help.    

Takeway #1: Teacher allyship is critical

Teacher allies make all the difference. Goldstein’s interviews show that whether a family has a positive or negative school experience depends highly on the extent to which teachers and schools are open to working with them. This is the case regardless of whether we’re talking about publicly funded secular, Catholic, rural, urban or suburban schools.

The idea that teachers are critical to student experience shouldn’t be a surprise, but it cannot be overstated either. Children and youth living in LGBTQ families are at a higher risk of being pushed out of a school when they cannot find allies, says Goldstein.

“In cases where there were no allies or examples of allyship, parents that we interviewed had to take their kids out of school and try them in a different one. Several parents decided to homeschool their children because they were simply unable to find a school that was willing to work with them to create a safe and welcoming environment.”

If you want to be an effective teacher ally, one of the most important things you can do, parents tell Goldstein, is to listen.

“Listen to what students are telling you about their lives and their needs at school. For example, if a student tells you that they have changed their name and pronoun, you should respect the change.”

In this video interview with Goldstein's team, parents Max and Ryan share their hopes for teachers working with trans families and students. “They are raising our children with us. We are a team. We’re in this together. So…get to know the families, talk to the families, and see the kids for who they are and who they say they are.” Explore more interviews at LGBTQ Families Speak Out

Takeway #2: ‘Allyship without action is an oxymoron’

To be an ally, you must take action.

“Allyship without action is an oxymoron. There are many teachers who feel that they accept LGBTQ families and students and call themselves allies, but unless that allyship is accompanied by sustained action, you can’t really consider yourself one,” says Goldstein.

One way that a teacher can get started is by getting involved with their school’s Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) or other LGBTQ-inclusive student clubs, either by leading or joining the group or helping out with its events.

GSAs are common in most schools and are instrumental in helping to facilitate a more inclusive and supportive environment for LGTBQ families and students. Research conducted across Canada reveals that schools with a GSA experience lower levels of LGBTQ harassment and bullying. By supporting the club, teachers help boost its credibility.

Takeaway #3: Move beyond accommodating to expecting LGBTQ families at school

LGBTQ families report that schools often try to accommodate the needs of their families when asked – but sometimes only after a lot of negotiation. While important, accommodation is not sufficient, they say.

“It makes families feel like they are a problem that has to be solved,” explains Goldstein. Instead, families hope to see schools develop a culture that expects and welcomes them.

This means that schools won't be caught off guard or struggle to support when a child is transitioning, has two moms or dads, or more than two parents. Instead, schools would already expect diverse families in their schools and have fully developed processes, systems and trained staff to help meet their needs.

“A school that expects LGBTQ families is ready to act and has practices that make it easy for LGBTQ students so that, for example, accessing bathrooms or changing your name on school documents is not a big deal.

“Or, it may have a practice in place in which they don’t make assumptions over how a family celebrates Mother’s and Father’s Day. Instead, teachers ask all students and parents what they should do in the case of their family,” says Goldstein.

One immediate step a teacher or principal can take is to review school forms and ensure they employ language that is inclusive of all identities and family structures. This might include updating forms to include gender neutral language instead of male/female binaries, or ensuring that permission slips ask for ‘guardian’ or ‘parent’ signatures as opposed to ‘a mother or father’ signatures.

Takeaway #4: Normalize LGBTQ lives and families in the curriculum

Families who identify as LGBTQ make strategic decisions about whether it is safe to ‘come out’ at school. Here, families are looking for indicators from principals or teachers that they would be open and accepting of their families.

Some parents and students feel that disclosing their sexual and/or gender identity is helpful because it may help them work better with schools. However, others weigh the decision because they fear that their family will be rejected.

“Coming out can mark both parents and children as different, and it’s not always safe to be seen as different at school,” says Goldstein.

When it’s not safe, students may find themselves being bullied or harassed by peers or having to answer difficult, uncomfortable or hurtful questions such as, ‘why does your mom look like a boy?’

Teachers and principals aspiring to create schools where students and families feel safe to come out can begin by working to normalize LGBTQ lives and families in the classroom.

This includes ensuring that LGBTQ lives and families are well represented in the curriculum. Teachers can do this is by choosing storybooks and novels featuring diverse families, as well as characters who express their gender in different ways.

"The idea is to expose students to a variety of family types so LGBTQ-families are no longer seen as unusual or different,” Goldstein says.

Teachers can also begin each class with a name and pronoun check, an exercise that Goldstein uses in her own classrooms. This exercise helps interrupt the assumption that people identify as either a he or she, or as a boy or girl, and works to normalizes the idea that there are many ways to express gender.

Want more insights from Goldstein on how to build safer, more welcoming schools? Check out her latest book, Teaching Gender and Sexuality at School: Letters to Teachers.